How to Find Peak Experience
Reviewed in this article:
Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. Paperback, 303 pages
Have you ever run a marathon? The experience is like nothing else – for much of the race, you are totally focused, 100 percent engaged. Time seems to slow down. You may even feel like “you” are disappearing, until there’s nothing but movement. You are totally alive.
Whether you’re an Olympic athlete or you haven’t run in years, you know what that optimal experience is like. At different moments in life, we have all felt creative, joyful, and fully alive. In those moments, we enter what psychologists call “flow.”
The man who first coined the term is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker School of Management. For more than three decades he has conducted research into high performance, peak experience, and happiness. In Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi draws from his impressive research to describe this state.
Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Being in this focused state makes you happy. But it’s not just an everyday, short-term happiness, the kind that comes from material possessions and physical comfort. Flow leads to more durable and authentic satisfaction with life.
Certain people are able to enter a state of flow frequently and at will. They “lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties to other people and to the environment in which they live.” Even better, “they are hardly ever bored. Perhaps their greatest strength is that they are in control of their lives.”
But how do you become one of those people?
Say you want to learn to play guitar. If forced to perform a concert after just one lesson, you’ll feel anxiety because the task is too difficult. Conversely, if you practice the same chord every day for months with no progress, you’ll quickly grow bored. So flow demands a balance. You must know yourself and your skills. Then you must constantly give yourself new challenges that are just beyond your skill level – not so hard that you give up, but not so easy that you get bored. Flow lies somewhere in between.
Csikszentmihalyi pinpoints those activities that he calls “autotelic,” a Greek word meaning worthwhile in itself. In other words, activities that people do for their own sake, without expecting money or any other reward. Competing in a sport, playing a musical instrument, making art – as long as you don’t do it solely for the money, then almost any activity could be autotelic and stimulate a state of flow.
Overall, Flow is an important book, a landmark in the field of psychology. And Csikszentmihalyi is a fine writer. But he makes his argument in the first 100 pages. Everything after that feels like padding to justify a full-length book. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence, but very few practical suggestions. If you are an employer or a manager, you may want to read Chapter Seven, Work as Flow, for an important message about engaging your employees. Otherwise, I suggest reading only the first four chapters, and then skimming the rest.
Read the book. Challenge yourself. And may all your experience flow.